Today is the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, a war which six decades later is still surrounded in controversy. For decades, the Party line in the PRC was the same one that is alive and well and living in Pyongyang today: The American Imperialists, with the help of their lackeys in the right-wing militarist government in Seoul, invaded the North. As Tania Branigan reports from Dandong for The Guardian, it’s a belief that dies hard, especially because many Chinese living along the PRC/DPRK border personally witnessed bombing raids by American planes during the war.
But times are changing. For example, yesterday the Global Times English-language edition published an op-ed calling for PRC archives to be opened up for further study of the Korean War and Chinese involvement in the conflict. Chinese academia is not (quite) as bound and gagged by the Party as it once was, and many scholars accept the idea that it was the North who commenced aggressions against the South.*
I went online to the People’s Education Press and checked out their most recent high school history textbook.** The chapter on the Korean War narrowly skirts the question of who started the conflict in favor of another tactic of CCP historical obscurantism — slapping the ill-defined (and ill-definable) label of ‘internal affair’ all over the account. In this version, the US — and its “allies” — interfered in the “internal affair” of the Korean civil war and used the turmoil as a pretext to launch an invasion of the north and, ultimately, China.
Resist America, Support Korea, Protect the Homeland and Defend the Country
Not long after the founding of New China, the country faced the threat of external invasion. In the summer of 1950 the Korean Civil War erupted.*** The United States rushed to use military force to interfere in Korean internal matters, forming an American dominated “Allied Army” to invade Korea. They crossed the 38th Parallel and took the flames of war right up to China’s border. At the same time, the US 7th Pacific Fleet entered the Taiwan Straits and so interfering in China’s internal affairs. The situation in Korea was grave and imperiled China’s security and safety.
The textbook also tells students that when the US invaders pushed northward to the Yalu River, they began bombing Chinese civilian targets on the north side of the border, only to be finally beaten back by the heroic efforts of the Chinese volunteers and their Korean allies under the leadership of Peng Dehuai.****
What’s fascinating about the narrative in this textbook is that it manages to make the US seem like the principal aggressor while tiptoeing around the actions of Kim Il-sung and without mentioning the encouragement of Joseph Stalin and the USSR. Now I’m not giving the US a pass here, especially because the actions and words of one Douglas MacArthur (the patron saint of crazy-ass insubordinate generals) certainly would lead anyone unfamiliar with the US chain of command to the conclusion the American government had every intention of taking out the fledgling regime in Beijing — by nuclear means if necessary. And it’s pretty well documented that the US launched bombing raids against targets inside the PRC which led to civilian casualties. All that said, the Korean war was a conflict of great complexity, a complexity which – not surprisingly — recent history textbooks in the PRC do a nice job of papering over with the pablum of “Patriotic Education.”
Faced with such a dire situation, the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea requested that the Chinese government send troops to their aid. On October 10, 1950, in order to resist America, support Korea, and to protect and defend the country, a Chinese volunteer army under the leadership of Peng Dehuai entered Korea. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the Chinese volunteers and the Korean army and people beat back the American invaders, pushing them past the 38th Parallel. After which, a stalemate ensued between China/Korea and the American invaders. Due to fierce resistance by the Chinese and Koreans, in the summer of 1953 the United States had no choice but to sign the armistice. With their defeat of the American army and victory in the War to Resist America and Support Korea, the Chinese Volunteer Army disbanded triumphantly.
It’s interesting that China sees the war as a victory, and having cheered the US soccer team to a 1-1 draw with England
last week, I can sympathize. China defended its borders and was able to clean up the mess created by Kim Il-sung. The initial surprise attack by Peng Dehuai’s forces was also pretty spectacular, taking the American troops unaware and nearly routing the allied forces off of the Korean peninsula before settling on a return to the pre-war status quo and the division of the two Koreas along the 38th Parallel.
But it was all done at great cost. South Korea lost 137,000 soldiers, North Korea lost 215,000. There were over 36,000 American casualties and conservative estimates number Chinese casualties at 400,000 killed and another 400,000 wounded. That’s not to mention the enormous toll on the lives and livelihoods of Korean civilians. As many as 2.5 million Korean civilians were killed, wounded, or went missing as a result of the war and a shocking number of atrocities and massacres were carried out by both sides.
It was needless, senseless, brutal and there is more than enough blame to go around. It’s okay to teach history in such a way that the ugliness of all sides is represented alongside acts of heroism. As I wrote on Monday, replacing Manichean narratives with ones that encourage students to confront history in all of its nuance and mess doesn’t make students less patriotic, it makes them better global citizens. Castrating history so it seems less threatening in the present, or using history in support of political disputes in the here and now is a really crappy way to educate future generations, and it doesn’t matter whether the textbooks are published in Beijing, Pyongyang, or Texas.
* The cynic in me also notes that South Korean companies are major investors in Chinese industry, and the ROK is one of China’s largest trade partners in Asia while the DPRK has started to reach whole new levels of crazy. Seriously, if you read that “Kim Jong-il had purchased the body of Michael Jackson and was re-animating it for his own personal sexual predilections,” tell me you wouldn’t have to think about it for half a second before deciding whether it might be true or not…. The most recent example was the coach of the DPRK World Cup team suggesting he maintained contact with Kim Jong-il during matches through an invisible mobile communication device.
**It’s the second volume of the textbook I discussed in Monday’s post about the 110th anniversary of the Boxer Rebellion. In some ways this post is a kind of sequel to that one.
***Love the use of the passive voice here. It’s a common grammatical strategy in the PRC. For example, “After the Japanese were defeated in World War II, the CCP then moved to consolidate its position…” Yeah, lucky break there against Japan, wonder how that happened.
****Only five years after “winning” the war, Peng would be excommunicated by an enraged Mao for having the temerity to suggest that the Great Leap Forward wasn’t going as planned (the whole mass starvation bit). Some history wags suggest that the Chairman never forgave Peng for allowing Mao’s eldest (acknowledged and surviving) son Mao Anying to be killed in action during a US air strike. Additional post-script regarding Mao’s son, a Chinese friend of mine suggested — and in his defense, he suggested it over drinks — that Mao Anying being killed was “the best thing to ever happen to China” and that if Anying had survived, Mao would have felt compelled to hand over power to his kid. “We would be just like North Korea.” A lot of BIG what-ifs in there, but it’s an interesting theory.